Joshimath Crisis and After Violations for Cash

A Tehelka SIT report reveals how property agents help prospective property buyers in the hill towns of Uttarakhand get around building by-laws by acting as a go-between for them and the corrupt officials

“Just bribe the officials of the Lake Development Authority [LDA], Nainital, and get all the clearances for building a resort on your land in Nainital district, no matter whether you follow their guidelines or not.” This is Karan Sah for you. A real estate agent from the Himalayan state of Uttarakhand, working in Bhowali town of Nainital district, Karan claimed while speaking to Tehelka reporter that he himself had got the construction map of a house approved from the LDA after greasing palms of the officials. Karan further gave us an LDA official’s number, through which, he claimed, we could get our house map approved in return for cash even if there are building by-law violations.

In the wake of the recent Joshimath crisis which occurred in January this year, where thousands of houses had developed cracks, Tehelka decided to travel to picturesque town of Nainital in Uttarakhand. This report exposes how unplanned and illegal constructions, which are blamed by experts for the situation Joshimath finds itself today, are still continuing unabated. It is believed that Joshimath is “gradually sinking.” But alarmingly, the phenomenon is not confined only to this holy town. Fear lurks among the residents of the other hill towns like Nainital, Mussorie, Karnaprayag, Uttarkashi, Guptkashi and Rishikesh as cracks have started appearing in buildings and roads there too.

Nainital, a famous tourist destination in Uttarakhand, is also witnessing a situation similar to Joshimath. Cracks have appeared on the Mall Road in Nainital, triggering the alarm bells. Taking a quick action, the Public Works Department (PWD) filled the cracks and levelled the subsidence by applying cement. But this is not the first time that Mall Road has developed cracks. In the past too, cracks were seen at many places in the lower Mall Road near the Grand Hotel in the Mallital area. The PWD filled all the cracks with mud and sand which had washed away due to rain. Even before this, in August 2018, a part of the Mall Road broke and fell into the lake. Now again, as the pictures of the cracks have come to the fore, danger looms on lower Mall. Apart from this, some minor cracks have also been observed. Taking it on priority, the department filled the cracks with liquid, mud and sand. Incidentally, this time, cracks on the Mall Road are longer and wider than the last time.

Experts have spoken of the possibility of ground subsidence in the area more than ten years prior. The fact that Joshimath town is sinking is not shocking because no corrective actions followed whenever violations had raised hackles in the past. Several new multi-story structures are said to have sprouted up in and around not only in Joshimath, but in all the hill towns of Uttarakhand which are now reporting fractures in buildings and streets. Joshimath’s problem with slope instability has gotten worse as a result of unplanned construction that didn’t take the bearing capacity into account, according to a survey report by the Uttarakhand State Disaster Management Authority [USDMA] from August 2022. Several additional buildings could be developed in the landslide-prone area by building retaining walls. As a result, there is now increased strain on the weak slope.

Experts say that massive construction projects undertaken without enough planning, combined with rise in population, tourist load, illegal construction and vehicular pressure are creating a deadly cocktail that is hurting hill towns in Uttarakhand. Tehelka decided to investigate Nainital district, a famous hill station of north India, where in every nook and corner, you will find agents claiming that they will help you in getting your house or resort constructed in the Nainital district after getting all the necessary permissions from the District Level Development Authority of Nainital, known as Lake Development Authority [LDA]. They will also guide you to the LDA officials whom you can bribe after which you can undertake construction as per your wishes giving a wide berth to the building by-laws.

And all this is all happening after the recent Joshimath crisis caught the attention of entire nation. It just goes to show that we have not learned anything from our mistakes.

As part of this investigation, Tehelka first met Karan Sah, a real estate agent, in Bhowali in Nainital district. Karan hails from Uttarakhand. We gave a fictitious deal to Karan that we wanted to build a cottage in Bhowali, and said that we wanted hassle-free approvals, including cottage construction map, from the LDA. We told him that as the administration has got stricter with regard to the building norms in the backdrop of Joshimath crisis, we were a little apprehensive. However, Karan assured us that he would get the work done by the LDA, but for that we would have to cough up some money, which would include bribe as well as the official fee. Karan gave us the phone number of an LDA official, who is known to him. He assured us that the official would get our job done after getting the bribe.

Reporter- Accha ye bata LDA ka naksha agar pass karwana ho to kharcha kitna aayega

Karan- 1 to 1.25 lakh

Reporter- Itna kyun ?

Karan – Aata hi hai sir..

Reporter- Rishwat kitni hogi ismein ?

Karan- Rishwat pooch kar bataunga..

Reporter- Batana.. Joshimath ke baad darr lagne laga hai..

Karan – Nahi aisa nahi hai sir…haan khada plot leney mein aisa rehta hi hai..

Reporter- Ye LDA k ander hi kaam kartey hain..?

Karan- LDA ke ander k hi hain, naksha pass karwa denge…thoda aap inka badiya karwa dena…ye kum mein bhi karwa denge…inko khush kartey rehna..

[After assuring us of all help in getting the cottage map approved, Karan gave us an LDA official’s phone number who, according to him, will help us in getting all the approvals after he is paid off.]

According to Karan, LDA officials come for the building inspection and return after taking money ignoring all violations done during the construction. They generally don’t return for inspection for five months after this visit. Karan said that the phone number of the official he has given to us is the man who did all the inspection of the buildings constructed during the Gram Sabha time before LDA came into existence.

Karan- Aapko to zyada paisa lagega na jaaney mein inse direct karwa lijiye ga kaam…ab jitney bhi gram panchayat se bane hain na ye buildings ka nirakshan aisey hi kartey hain apna paisa lekar chale jaatey 5-6 mahiney tak shant rehta hai mamla…ab aap inse direct baat karke naksha pass karwa lijiyega…

Reporter- Accha gram panchayat ki jo buildings bani hai. Apartments baney hain unka inspection kartey hain LDA wale..?

Karan- Haan kartey hain, kuch nahi kartey bas paisa lekar chaley jaate hain..

Reporter- Paisa lekar?.. matlab rishwat lekar ?

Karan- Rishwat lekar yehi to lekar jaatey hain XXXXX ji..Rishwat khaoo hain, Aadmi achey hain waise.

Reporter- Inspection yehi kartey hain XXXXX ji..?

Karan- Haan inspection yahi kartey hain..

[ Karan explained how the LDA officials who came for the inspection for the building constructed during Gram Sabha period turned blind eye to the violations once their palms were greased. Karan claimed the LDA official he was referring to was the “most corrupt person.”]

Now, Karan again assured us that he will get our house construction map approved from the LDA. To buttress his argument, he said that he himself had got a house map approved from the LDA after paying Rs.1.50 lakh, including the bribe money.

Reporter- LDA se naksha pass ho jayega..?

Karan- Main karwa dunga pakka.

Reporter- Rishwat kitni hogi..?

Karan- Rishwat wagera aap baat kar lena..

Reporter- Tu ne karwaye hain pehle.?

Karan- Haan karwaye hain..inse nahi karwaye jinse karwaye hain wo ab wahan par Rudrapur..

Reporter- Tu ne karwaya hai naksha pass?

Karan- Naksha karwaya hai pass, jinka karwaya tha unke lagbhag dedh lage they (1.5 lakh).

Reporter- Rishwat mila ke..?

Karan- Sab mila ke..simplex banwaya tha unhoney..

[ Karan again assured Tehelka reporter that he will get our house construction map approved by the LDA. He told us that in the past, he himself had got one house map approved from the LDA at the cost of Rs 1.50 lakh, which also included the bribe. ]

When asked whether we’ll get our construction approval from the LDA even if don’t follow their construction guidelines, Karan said we will get all the clearances after paying money. He told us to talk directly to the LDA official about the money, whose number he had given to us.

Reporter- Accha chahey poori cheezein fulfil na hoti hon tab bhi ho jayega.?

Karan- Matlab.?

Reporter- Jaisey LDA ka koi guidelines hain ki ye cheeezein honi chahiye aur who agar nahi bhi ho hamarey plot mein tab bhi naksha pass kar denge..

Karan- nahi aisa kuch nahi bhi kar dengey..usmein sir aisa karwa XXXXX  ji. karwa denge aapka sara kaam.

Reporter- XXXXXX ji…inko kitna paisa dena padega..?

Karan- Mein inko bol dunga aap baat kar lena karwa denge…kya pata 1 lakh se kam mein hi karwa de..?

Reporter- 50k-1 Lakh mein..?

Karan- Haan..ek baar aap baat kar lena..aapko khush kar dunga aisey karke baat kar lena.

Reporter- Mein direct bol doon.?

Karan – Bol do abhi pehle plot ki baat kar lo…

[ Karan assured us that since we are paying money, the LDA official whom we are supposed to contact will ignore all the violations. He will give green signal for construction by approving our construction map. Karan told us to talk to him directly about the money. He said he too would talk to the LDA official about our work, adding that the latter might agree to give us some discount.]

Joshimath crisis seems to have made little difference to unscrupulous property agents in Uttarakhand. They are out in the market offering various deals of unplanned and illegal constructions to their clients with a promise that they would broker their deal with the officials of the LDA to fecilitate illegal construction.

Now, Tehelka met another real estate agent, Mohammed Osama alias Chirag in Bhowali, district Nainital. Osama is working as a sales head with a reputed construction company of Uttarakhand.

To Osama also, we gave a fictitious deal that we want to build a cottage in Nainital after buying a land at this famous tourist destination, and sought his help in obtaining all the approvals, including construction map, from the LDA. Osama agreed to our demand, and told us about the amount we will have to pay as bribe for all the approvals.

Reporter- Aur LDA se naksha pass.?.

Osama- Sari cheez karwa dunga..

Reporter- LDA se karwa dogey naksha pass, kitna kharcha aa jayega usmein ?

Osama- For example maan kar chaliye 1 lakh rupees k aas pass..

Reporter- Usmein kya kya hoga..?

Osama- Ye mein lumsum bata raha hoon.

Reporter- Matlab 1- 1.25 lakhs rishwat hogi..?

Osama- Haan, matlab ye aapka jayega paisa..

Reporter- Matlab rishwat ke hongey na..?

Osama- Haan agar jaldi kaam karwana hai.

Reporter- Ye fees hai LDA ki ya rishwat hai..?

Osama- Rishwat hai…

Osama- Aapka kum bhi ho sakti hai, 50-60 hazar mein bhi kaam ho sakta hai.

[Osama assured Tehelka reporter that he will arrange all the approvals for the construction of our cottage in Nainital from LDA as a quid pro quo for the bribe.]

After this, Osama touched upon his ‘accomplishments’ as real estate agent which, unfortunately, might have put many human lives in danger in Bhimtal, Uttarakhand. He disclosed how by bribing an LDA official, he wangled a administrative nod for a residential construction at a place where high tension electric wires were passing above. He said he had got the deal done two and a half years ago after paying a bribe of Rs 1.20 lakh to the LDA officials. Osama boasted that to get approval for such a site is almost impossible but he had still managed to do it.

Reporter- Aapney karaye hain aisey pass nakshey..?

Osama- Haan bahut karwaye hain, Bhimtal mein high tension wire jaati hain na wo waley bhi hamney karwaye hain.

Reporter- LDA se ?

Osama- LDA se…

Reporter- Hota nahi hai waisey ?

Osama- Hota nahi hai…jugaad ki baat hai, time time ki baat hai…

Reporter- Abhi hai banda aapka LDA mein..ho jayega saara kaam..?

Osama- Ho jayega.

Reporter- Aur kitni rishwat gayi Bhimtal mein..?

Osama- Sir hamney usko diye 1 lakh 20,000 (1.20lakh)

Reporter- Poorey rishwat ke ?

Osama- Poore rishwat ke..

Reporter- Aur agar high tension wire gir gaya uspar..phir ?

Osama- Ab dekhiye usne kar bhi diya kaam hamara..bas ye hai ho jayega, us kaam mein koi tension nahi hai, 2.5 saal ho gaye

[Osama’s boast about how he managed an administrative approval for a residential construction at a place with high tension wires looming overhead in Bhimtal left us far from impressed]

Osama has no regret that he has put so many human lives in danger. Instead, he said it has been 2.5 years since he got approval for the house, but nothing untoward has happened so far. Acts of people like Osama lay foundation of bigger tragedies in future. And he has laid one in Bhimtal by his own confession. But who knows who is the Osama of Joshimath and other hill towns of Uttarakhand, where buildings and roads are showing cracks.?

Osama made another startling disclosure to Tehelka that there are many buildings in the Nainital district which have come up without approval from any authority; neither from Gram Sabha nor from LDA. According to Osama, mostly, people from Batla House in Delhi have undertaken construction work in these hill regions, with no approval from any authority. They constructed the buildings after bribing the Gram Pradhan of the village. That is why there was no resistance from any quarter against illegal construction. Villagers got  employment  at the construction site, and Gram Pradhan the money. This made everyone turn a blind eye to the illegal work, added Osama.

Reporter- Ye LDA 19-20 mein aaya hai…to 19 aur 20 se pehley, jo Gram Sabha k through bann gayi hain wo theek hai ?

Osama- Theek hain, bahut si aisi society hain jinhone Gram Sabha se bhi naksha nahi pass karwaya.

Reporter- Accha matlab gram sabha se bhi naksha pass nahi hai.

Osama – Haan, matlab aaapka proper agreement hona chahiye, mohar lagi ho, XXXX valley ka to mein sara bhej dunga,..iska nahi hai..

Reporter- Matlab ye gram sabha se bhi approved nahi hai. Ye matlab kisi se bhi aprooved nahi hai, ye matlab totally illegal ho gayi…

Osama- Matlab aap ye maan kar chaliye k aap safe nahi hain.

Reporter- Agar ye gram sabha se bhi aproove nahi hai to bann kaise gayi..?

Osama- Sir yahan par kya hai zyada tar builder Batla House ke hain..

Reporter- Delhi ke ?

Osama- Haan Delhi ke, zameen le li , 4-5 partner hue milkar bana li, pehle koi poochta hi nahi tha, pahadon par kaun ata tha. Bana kar bech diya.

Reporter- Gram sabha ke log objection nahi kartey they ?

Osama- Koi bhi nahi karta tha, unhe kya hai, unhein rozgar milta tha

Reporter- Gram sabha walon ko.?

Osama- Jaisey gaon waley hotey they unhe rozgar mil jata tha.

Reporter- Gram Pradhan ko to rozgar nahi mil raha tha..

Osama- Paisey de diya Gram Pradhan ko .Kaam start kar diya…usey paisey se matlab tha, kaam start.

Reporter- Aise to bahut building hongi..?

Osama- Bahut hain.

Reporter- Gram Sabha se bhi aproove nahi thi.?.

[Osama explained how Batla House builders from Delhi were involved in the business of illegal construction in Nainital district after acquiring land from the Gram Sabha, before LDA came into existence. And how different stakeholders had own axe to grind as they remained tight-lipped while illegal buildings came about in the district]

How some real estate agents are working in the hills, can be judged from the fact that Osama showed us a penthouse for purchase. Ten minutes after we saw that penthouse, Osama changed his mind as he explained that the said penthouse was an illegal construction. Just imagine, Osama was selling illegally constructed penthouse to us. Who knows, how many others illegally constructed units he would have sold to other clients ?

Reporter- Kuch society aisi hain jo gram sabha se bhi aproove nahi hain?

Osama- Ye jo saamney flat bana hua hai ye 2010 se pehley ka hai.

Reporter- Jo panthouse aap mujhe dikhaney le gaye they.. arey baap re to ye to phir illegal hai,…mujhe kyun bikwa rahe they aap illegal?

Osama – Mainey socha aap lena cha rahe ho.

Reporter- Arey nahi bhai kyun phasa rahe ho.?

[Osama offered us a penthouse for purchase. But he later revealed that the penthouse was illegally constructed without any approval. This shows Osama’s intention. Like us, he would have offered or sold illegally constructed properties to other clients too ? ]

After Osama, Tehelka met another real estate agent, Sanjay Pathak at Bhowali in Nainital district. Sanjay is working as a General Manager in a Delhi-based real estate firm, which runs several resorts in various hill stations of north India, including Nainital. To Sanjay also, we gave the same fictitious deal that we want to buy a cottage in Nainital, but with all the approvals from LDA as we are fear the administration has gotten tough with the violators  after Joshimath crisis. Sanjay offered us a 100 sq yard plot in his Nainital resort with the assurance that he will get all the necessary approvals, required for the construction of a cottage, from the LDA. He also told us the amount we would have to pay as bribe for all the approvals, which ranges between Rs 2.50 lakh and Rs 3 lakh. He said the bribe money is hiked to Rs 3.50 lakh to 4 lakhs if the builder comes into the picture. Since it will be an approval for an individual, so the amount will be less, added Sanjay.

Reporter- Accha ye bataiye LDA se hum jo naksha aprove karwayengey, uska kitna kharcha aayega?

Sanjay- Usmein kam se kam 2.5 to 3 lakh aayega..

Reporter- 2.5 se 3 lakh,, itna kyun sir.?.

Sanjay- Naksha approve kartey hain, visit kartey hain, kuch receipts kaat tey hain, kuch under the table letey hain….ye to aapka independent hoga isliye 2.5 se 3 lakh lagega, humse to 3.50 se 4 lakh tak le letey hain, kyunki builder ka ek stamp aa jata hai na…

Reporter- 3.5 se 4 lakh tak letey hain LDA ke kis baat ka.. fees to unki kum hogi..?

Sanjay- Wo to theek hai sir lekin XXXXXX ko bhi jata hai na sir, XXXXX hai..hahahah

Reporter- Matlab rishwat jaati hai ?

Sanjay- Khuli hai yahan pe..XXXXX ke time par thoda darr tha logon ko ke kabhi bhi anti-corruption mein aa sakta hai, yahan par to registration ke liye jo baithi hai lady ya jo baitha hai, wo bolta hai, upper XXXXX ki photo lagi hui hai, bolta hai ki wahan tak file bhejunga.

Reporter- Kahan tak jata hai, XXXXXX ji tak ?

Sanjay- Sabhi corrupt hai..

Reporter- Accha.

Sanjay- Koi doodh ka dhula thodi hai… wo to kisi tarah se manage karke rakhey gaye hain, jab ki wo deserve nahi kartey.

Reporter- Registrar kaun hai abhi LDA ka?

Sanjay-LDA ka registrar to mujhe pata lagana padega…

Reporter- To naksha to aap approve karwa dengey, aisa to nahi ke ‘if and but’ karein LDA ke log.?

Sanjay- Bilkul bhi nahi.

[Sanjay told us about the amount we will have to pay including bribe for getting all the necessary approvals for the construction in Nainital. He assured us that after paying bribe, our work will be done.]

When asked what will be the bribe money out of Rs 2.50-3 lakh?, Sanjay said he will get the LDA officials to sit across the table with us. So that we can discuss the issue with them.

Reporter- 2.5 to 3 lakhs bata rahe hain aap, usmein rishwat ka kitna hoga.?

Sanjay- Ab sir aapko aamney saamne baitha dunga aap khud baat kar lijiyega…

Reporter- Haan ye theek hai, kuch kam ho jaye.

[Sanjay assured that that he will provide us an opportunity to negotiate with the LDA official the amount of bribe to be paid.]

Sanjay now claimed that he had got the construction map of various cottages and apartments of his Nainital resort approved by the LDA. He also claimed that the LDA officials would demand money even if one follows all construction by-laws. For officials, inspection visits are a mean to line their pockets. This has become a norm, Sanjay claimed.

Reporter- To yahan kara chuke hain aap, LDA se approve?

Sanjay- Ye ek, upper ke do…corner mein jo cottage bann raha hai teen, peechey jo apartment bann raha hai chaar..aise hain bahut sare…chal hi raha hai kaam..

Reporter- Ye sab LDA se approved hain..?

Sanjay- Sara Sara…mainey LDA ki copy bhi bheji thi..

Reporter- Accha normal way mein wo kartey nahi hongey…?

Sanjay- Sir unko aapki registry chahiye, naksha chahiye, aapke PAN aur Aadhar chahiye…

Reporter- Nahi.. aapke sare documents OK hain…tab bhi wo rishwat lenge..?

Sanjay- Kuch na kuch portion to lenge…

Reporter- Bina uske nahi karengey..?

Sanjay- Wo to sir ek  standard hai…aap aamney saamney baith lo.. sab karwa dunga.. kyunki hamara ek engineer hi karwata hai..he will work out.. mein sir saamney isliye nahi aata ki mere political connections bahut hain…mujhe phir har jagah kaam karna hai…to state govts. Har jagah alag alag hain…

[Sanjay said that even if we comply with all construction by-laws, LDA officials will still demand money for okaying the building. Corruption, he said, has become a norm ]

Sanjay assured us that since LDA official will take money from us, they will turn a blind eye towards all violations done by us in the construction of our cottage in Nainital.

Sanjay- Jab aap plot lengey tab tak mein sir ismein retaining wall lagwa dunga,…plot aisa kar dunga ki wo aakar dekhengey unko to bas plot taiyyar dikhna chahiye.

Reporter- Phir chahe usmein koi bhi kami ho wo mana nahi karengey ?

Sanjay- Kami…? Paisa le rahe hai to kis baat ki kami.

Reporter- Haan paisa le rahe hain…

[ Sanjay said that since we are paying bribe, LDA officials will ignore by-law violations, if any, at our proposed cottage in Nainital]

Memories of Uttarakhand tragedy of 2013 are still fresh in our minds, when flash floods wiped out settlements and decimated lives in Kedarnath, Rambara and Gaurikund. More than 5700 people died in the disaster. Today, the world is watching the as Joshimath, where a total of 561 establishments reported fractures that appeared after soil subsidence in January this year, is gripped by crisis. In other hill towns also, houses and roads have developed cracks. It seems we did not learn any lessons from the 2013 tragedy nor has the Joshimath crisis made us any wiser? As experts say, unplanned, illegal and heavy construction is one of the reasons for all the natural disasters witnessed in the hill state so far. The Tehelka report has exposed how illegal and unplanned constructions are still going on in the hill towns of Uttarakhand with the help of land mafia, who are acting as a go-between for the land owners and the authorities, helping the former to get all necessary construction approvals despite the by-law violations in return for an inducement.